Dan H. Sanes1,2,3, Nihaad Paraouty1
1Center for Neural Science, New York University, New York, USA
2Department of Psychology, New York University, New York, USA
3Department of Biology, New York University, New York, USA
The acquisition of new skills, including aural communication, can be facilitated when a naïve observer is exposed to a conspecific performing a well-defined behavior (i.e., social learning). Although the neural bases for auditory social learning remain uncertain, one plausible hypothesis is that social experience induces long-term changes to auditory cortex response properties, thereby facilitating the subsequent acquisition of an auditory skill. To explore this idea, we developed a social learning paradigm in which naïve Observer gerbils are exposed to a Demonstrator gerbil that is performing an amplitude modulation (AM) rate discrimination task across an opaque divider. Thus, Observers have access only to auditory cues (i.e., the AM sounds, Demonstrator vocalizations, movement-associated sounds). When exposed to a Demonstrator for five successive days, Observer gerbils subsequently acquire the AM task more rapidly than controls (Paraouty et al., 2020). We first asked whether auditory cortex activity is necessary for social learning. Auditory cortex was bilaterally inactivated in Observers during each of the five daily exposures to the Demonstrator. These Observers did not benefit from social exposure, suggesting a necessary role for auditory cortex. To determine whether neural plasticity was induced by the social experience, we recorded wirelessly from the Observer’s auditory cortex during each of the five daily exposure sessions with the Demonstrator. Auditory cortex neurons displayed a significant improvement in AM discrimination across the five days of social exposure. Furthermore, the magnitude of neural improvement correlated with an animal’s subsequent rate of task acquisition. Together, these findings suggest that auditory cortex plasticity plays a pivotal role in social learning.